When will employers learn?  They keep classifying retail Store Managers and Assistant Managers as exempt, when these workers are often misclassified, not intentionally, but because the nature of their duties often tends to undermine the primary duty test and render them non-exempt.  Another example is a recent case where Store Managers have been granted conditional certification in their FLSA collective action.  The case is entitled Spack et al. v. Trans World Entertainment Corp. and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of New York.

The plaintiffs can now send out notices to current and former store managers so they might opt in to the case.  The plaintiffs also want a class of Assistant Managers for alleged off the clock work.  The Company, however, won that round, convincing the Judge that it was too soon to certify such a class, asserting that it had not yet been ascertained if these workers were non-exempt, which would allow them to make these claims.

The Judge appeared to reserve decision on a combined class and also indicated that the class could also be de-certified.  The Court stated that “should additional discovery demonstrate the existence of significant differences between the SMs or between the SMs and SAMs, the court can choose to deny any future motion seeking conditional collective certification of the SAMs, or, at the second stage of the analysis, decertify the collective.”

The plaintiffs met the “modest” burden at this conditional stage by submitting twelve Certifications from opt-in plaintiffs who claimed they worked 50-70 hours per week and spent the vast majority of their time performing non-exempt, low-level tasks that were not managerial in nature.  The Company also submitted statements from managers that showed they performed managerial (i.e. exempt) work and tried to undermine the plaintiffs’ statements but the Court would not allow these manager statements to bear the weight that the Company urged they should be accorded.

The Takeaway

My advice to employers is to test the duties of their management personnel, especially lower level managers, against the criteria in the FLSA regulations.  This can be done via a “self-audit” or internal audit, of which I have conducted dozens.  You also need to check the law of the particular state in which the controversy may be litigated, as the state law may be tougher than the FLSA standards, such as in California or New York.

What is working time? There are many variations on this theme, some far grayer than others. When does waiting time become working time? Is the employee engaged to be waiting or waiting to be engaged? If the former, then it is working time. A class action involving more than 1,100 workers is now testing these hypotheses. These workers have been granted certification in a class action alleging they were not paid for time spent undergoing security checks before they left the store. The case is entitled Heredia et al. v. Eddie Bauer LLC and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of California.

Isometric Illustration of a Line at Security Checkpoint - Body Scan Machine U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman certified several causes of action, including a class for off-the-clock “exit inspections.” The Judge stated that there were two existing questions common to all class members–did the company mandate that security checks be performed off the clock and, if it did so, was the time spent by employees off the clock, waiting to go through security checks. compensable hours worked.

The theory of the suit (filed by a sales associate at a retail store) was that employees were not properly paid for time spent engaged in screening and time they waited for the screening to be conducted. The employee alleged that she was compelled to undergo bag checks and security inspections whenever she left the facility and these inspections were conducted pursuant to Company policy. Indeed, the worker alleged that supervisors directed her to clock out and wait at the front of the store before a manager would conduct a bag check.

The Company defended by asserting that the employees were only subject to screening if they were carrying a bag that might be utilized to steal store merchandise. The Company further stated that these bag checks were to be conducted on the clock, pursuant to Company policy. It also argued that the named plaintiff could not demonstrate that all class members incurred a common injury because there was no liability for some employees, such as those who did not carry a bag. The Judge observed that Eddie Bauer’s written policies did not mention whether employees had to clock out before undergoing a screening, or whether managers had to advise employees that these screenings were to be conducted on the clock.

Significantly, the judge rejected the contention that plaintiffs could not establish commonality because the Company policy allowed inspections to be performed on the clock. The Court observed that “this argument itself is an answer to the common question: whether Eddie Bauer’s policy and practice was to mandate that security checks be performed off-the-clock. Of course, the parties disagree on the answer to this question, but that does not preclude a finding of commonality under Rule 23(a)(2).”

The Takeaway

This is a troubling case. The element of compulsion, i.e. allegedly making employees punch out and wait for the inspection, makes this case very dangerous for the employer. It is made more interesting because the Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that similar waiting time was not compensable because that waiting time was not directly related to the job.

Maybe that is the next argument the Company should make…

There has been a great deal of litigation about class action waivers in Employee Handbooks and use of arbitration mechanisms in Employee Handbooks to preclude judicial litigation. A recent New Jersey federal case sheds more light on this thorny issue, and the decision favors employers. The case is entitled Essex v. The Children’s Place and was filed in federal court in the District of New Jersey.

Pen on paperIn October 2014, the Company developed an arbitration program that applied to all Associates working at retail stores in the United States. The Company used an intranet portal to communicate with Associates. To gain access, Associates used an employee identification number and personal password. Since October 2014, the Portal included The Mutual Agreement to Arbitrate Claims.

When the Company introduced the arbitration program, it sent Associates already working for the Company received a message through the Portal, directing them to review the Arbitration Agreement. That message explained “it is important that you review the Arbitration Agreement carefully” and that “[w]e expect all Associates to review and sign the Arbitration Agreement. However, because it is not a mandatory condition of your employment, you may elect to opt out and not be subject to the Arbitration Agreement.” Associates hired after October 2014 reviewed the Arbitration Agreement following orientation. The Arbitration Agreement included a class, collective, and representation waiver.

An Associate who declined to accept the terms of the Arbitration Agreement filled out an Opt Out Form, which was also located on the Portal. Of the 377 Store Managers who filed consent to join the lawsuit, 209 of them signed and submitted the Arbitration Agreements. These employees were not required to participate in the arbitration program as a condition of employment and the Arbitration Agreement expressly provided that signing the Arbitration Agreement was not a mandatory condition of employment.

The Court ruled that the Arbitration Agreement had a clear “opt out” provision. The Court noted that numerous Plaintiffs who opted into the case first opted out of the Arbitration Agreement. Thus, it was clear that the arbitration agreement had an opt-out clause and that “[s]uch a provision can hardly be construed to interfere with, restrain, or coerce an employee into forfeiting the rights afforded by § 7 of the NLRA”).  The Defendant conceded that the forty-nine Plaintiffs who did opt out of the Arbitration Agreement were not subject to this motion to compel. Thus, the Court dismissed the case as concerned those Plaintiffs who did not opt out of the arbitration provision.

The Takeaway

This is a very instructive case for employers. The defense works! In how many of my postings am I talking about magic bullets or an easy, quick, cheap way out of a FLSA collective action (at least for many of the opt-in workers).

Well, here is a real good one…

I have blogged (somewhat incessantly, I admit) about manager FLSA class actions and what the line(s) of defense are for the employer in these cases, and how to defeat these cases. Another case in point. A federal judge has now decertified a collective class, following the Magistrate Judge’s recommendation against the class continuing in this overtime action. The case is entitled McEarchen et al. v. Urban Outfitters Inc., and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of New York.

Retail clothing storeJudge Roslynn R. Mauskopf adopted the Magistrate Judge’s report and recommendations, concluding that there was no plain error in the Report. Moreover, the Managers had not lodged objections to the Report/Recommendations. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein had ruled that there were too many differences in duties, responsibilities and authority among the members of the class to allow the claims to proceed as a collective action.

The Managers stated that they agreed not to object to the Report if the Company gave the Managers more time to file, perhaps, individual lawsuits. The original lawsuit alleged misclassification, i.e. that the Managers did not fit the executive exemption, they were not true managers and therefore were non-exempt under the FLSA. The plaintiffs moved to certify a class of all current/former department Managers at the Company’s 179 stores. The plaintiffs argued that all of the Managers had similar job duties and lacked meaningful discretion. There were notices sent to 1,500 potential opt-ins, following the granting of conditional certification. More than two hundred opted in and several were deposed.

The Magistrate Judge found that there were major differences between the duties and experiences of the opt-in plaintiff and the named plaintiffs. The Judge found that the opt-ins seemed to be exempt, as opposed to the named plaintiffs. The named plaintiffs asserted that they had little say in hiring and firing decisions. To the contrary, many opt-ins “described being active participants in the hiring and firing process,” Judge Orenstein wrote. The named plaintiffs posited that they spent but little time training hourly workers, but many opt-ins testified to a broad range of training responsibilities.

The Takeaway

This is another lesson for employers, not only in these Manager type cases but also for all employers defending almost any kind of FLSA (or state) class/collective action.  Bang away at individual differences in the class. It sure helps if the opt-ins to the class give favorable testimony at the expense of their own self-interest (and wallet). The interesting twist is that the plaintiffs extracted more time for possible plaintiffs to file their own individual cases.

Maybe they know something…

There have been many investigations of gas stations by the US Department of Labor. Like other retail industries, these businesses sometimes work their employees long hours for a set salary or lump sum of money. The problem is that in these scenarios, the employer is likely not paying proper overtime.

Gas stationIt has happened again, in New Jersey. A chain of six southern New Jersey gas stations will pay twenty-seven (27) workers almost $500,000 in back pay and liquidated damages in an audit emanating from a USDOL investigation into violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act,

The latest violator, R & R Store Inc., operating as USA Gas, had paid these workers a flat monthly salary ranging from $2,200-2,400; the employees worked approximately seventy (70) hours per week, but were not paid overtime. A DOL spokeswoman stated that “not paying employees the wages they’ve earned seriously impacts low-wage employees, such as gas station attendants, causing them hardships as they try to support themselves and their families.”

Significantly, the agency also assessed liquidated damages, which doubled the wages due, for an aggregate total of $463,453.52.  Liquidated damages are often now the rule, even in administrative investigations and audits. Interestingly, gas stations in New Jersey and Oregon are the only states that prevent motorists from pumping their own gas, so they need to employ workers, many of them full-time, to pump the gas and provide customer assistance and services.

In sum, the government took a hard line. Its spokesperson stated that the “U.S. Department of Labor remains focused on New Jersey’s gas stations to determine if FLSA violations exist. If violations are found, we will vigorously pursue corrective action to ensure accountability, deter future violations and prevent violators from gaining a competitive advantage.”

The Takeaway

These wage hour problems/issues are rampant in this industry (and in many other retail industries). Employees are paid a lump sum of cash for hours far exceeding the statutory threshold for overtime, i.e. 40 but they never receive appropriate time and one-half overtime. There are ways, however, legal ways, to build in the overtime to employee lump sums (whether cash or otherwise). The employer’s labor costs need not rise in this scenario and, most importantly, the DOL problems go away and never come back.

It can happen…

There is no industry or business that is immune to FLSA collective actions.  One might think that the a “high end” jewelry business would not be hit with such a suit, but a California federal judge has just certified a class of Zales employees who have alleged that their employer did not pay overtime properly; that FLSA class has been certified, nationwide.  The case is entitled Tapia v. Zale Delaware Inc. et al., and was filed in federal court in the Southern District of California.

Diamond ring
Copyright: bigheado / 123RF Stock Photo

The class includes 1,600 workers in a class limited to California workers.  The plaintiffs alleged that the Company rounded down time reflected on time cards.  The judge found it “easy” to certify the class as the Company’s uniform payroll policy showed that the workers were similarly situated.  The Court stated that “plaintiff established that defendant uses the same ‘point of sale’ computer system to record the time its hourly employees work at the stores.  Thus, plaintiff is able to determine from defendant’s time records — to the minute — the time every employee in the class clocked in and clocked out.”

The judge rejected Zales’ essentially legal argument that its “rounding” practice was legal.  The Court concluded that it was too early into the case to make that merits-based determination.  That was the (just) the California case.  The Court also granted conditional certification of a nationwide class of possibly 20,000 workers who worked at Zales since July 2010.  They alleged that the same rounding practices deprived them of overtime monies.  Again the Judge found commonality, stating that the “plaintiff has shown that there are other similarly situated employees because defendant uses the same payroll procedures at all of its stores.”

The named plaintiff, who was fired after less than one year, alleged that her time records were altered to show that she worked fewer hours than she actually did.  For example, if she worked nine hours and three minutes, the extra three minutes were automatically deducted.  She also claimed that a thirty minute lunch was deducted, whether she took her lunch or worked through it and she was not paid overtime.  The brevity of her employment may undermine her credibility.  The Company strongly denies the allegations and contends that the rounding system was in compliance with FLSA standards.

The Takeaway

This class was certified due to the overall, uniform practice of rounding employee time down (and, hopefully, up).  This is dangerous.  In many class actions, we defend by arguing that too much individualized scrutiny is called for and that is why the necessary commonality does not exist.  Here, where an overriding practice obtains, that argument goes away.  What the Employer is left with, it seems, is contending that the rounding practice comported with the FLSA.

All those eggs in a single basket?

I have a feeling it may hold them…

Copyright: fotomircea / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: fotomircea / 123RF Stock Photo

A Texas federal court handed a quick win Wednesday to a class of trainers claiming Gold’s Gym unfairly denied them overtime, ruling their pay did not comprise “bona fide commissions” under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The case is entitled Casanova et al. v. Gold’s Texas Holdings Group Inc., and was filed in federal court in the Western District of Texas.

The issue was whether the payments received constituted commissions under the FLSA.  If ruled commissions, the employer could seek the protection and the exemption of Section 7(i) of the FLSA, the so-called commission exemption.  The Court ruled that the percentage of the fees paid by clients and given to the trainers were tied to one-hour class sessions and therefore were “wages” rather than commissions.  Thus, Section 7(i) was inapplicable.

The Court found that “the compensation system was not decoupled from time.  Instead, a one-to-one correlation existed between the hours a trainer worked and his or her compensation.  Such a compensation system reflects nothing more than an hourly wage, where the employee’s rate of pay changes based upon his or her qualifications.”

The trainers filed a collective action in December 2013, claiming they were misclassified and entitled to overtime.  The group was granted conditional class and 80 trainers opted in.  The trainers were paid in a two-part system that included a flat rate for “floor hours” or hours worked performing general tasks at the gym and some of the fees for individual and group training classes that the employees sell and conduct.  The employees were paid a set percentage of these fees based on certificates they earned and the number of classes they conducted.

The employer claimed these were commissions; the trainers claimed that the fees were proportional to and tied to hours worked, without performance-based fluctuations, and thus were not “commissions” as defined by the FLSA.  The Court noted that bona fide commissions were demarcated by several characteristics, including that the commissions were a percentage of the price passed on to the consumer and were separate and apart from actual hours worked so that the employees had an incentive to work more efficiently.  The payments failed to meet this second prong of the test, as employees could not work more quickly since the classes were a fixed length of time.

The Takeaway

The Section 7(i) exemption rests on receipt of at least 50% of commission compensation by the affected employees, as well as some other requirements, e.g. retail industry.  In that instance (and in those weeks) the employee is exempt.  The whole point of “commission,” however is that it seeks to incentivize people to work more quickly or efficiently, to churn up that commission.

Without the protection of 7(i), all of these extra payments must be calculated into the regular rate for any week in which any employee(s) worked overtime, thus inflating the regular rate by, in all likelihood, small amounts of money on a weekly basis.  If, however, a lawsuit is filed and it is a class action and eighty or so employees join in and computations are done for 2-3 years going back, then the wages are doubled, with attorney fees added in, it is plain that the exposure is geometric.

Much better to research and resolve the issue before the compensation (e.g. “commission”) system is implemented…

There are some interesting cases going on right now about whether employees who work in electronic retail stores need to be paid for the time they spend waiting to get their bags checked when they clock in and out of their shifts.  Currently, these security checks are “off the clock” but sometimes these employees are spending 45 minutes a day waiting to get their bags checked.  Should they be getting paid for that time?  The courts are now deciding that question.

One of those employers is Apple, who is currently defending itself against a class-action case by store workers who say they were not paid for time spent waiting for Apple security to check their bags each time they left a store, whether for lunch breaks or at the end of their shift.  Understandable, Apple retail locations house some pretty expensive and tiny electronics (…not including the iPhone 6+ which just seems oddly huge).

I’ve been keeping an eye on this California class-action to see what happens because there are several other retail employers that have similar practices and have smaller class actions also pending.  The outcome may require employers to seriously modify their policies.

 

In FLSA cases, the plaintiff will often sue not only the Company, but its owners and/or officers as well.  I know from personal experience in defending these cases that clients often are motivated to settle because they fear the specter of possible personal or individual liability.

The recent case involving the owner of Gristede’s Foods Incorporated illustrates this maxim in a graphic manner.  He has appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that he is not an “employer” under the Fair Labor Standards Act and thus should not be held liable for any portion of the $3.5 million settlement just arrived at to resolve overtime employees who were pursuing a class action.  The case is entitled Torres et al. v. Gristede’s Operating Corporation.

The CEO, John Catsimatidis, argues that he should not be liable to payments to the more than five hundred Department Managers (who were allegedly misclassified as exempt) because the day-to-day operations were handled by his deputies and their deputies and so on.  Thus, he disclaimed any operational control at the level where the working conditions, job duties, and, most importantly, hours, of the employees were regulated and directed from.  A lower federal Court had ruled in September 2011 that he “retained” control of the daily operations of the various stores and thus he was an “employer” as defined under the FLSA.

The CEO’s appeal focuses its attack on the legal standard used by the District Court.  He urges that the district court had applied the wrong legal standard and should have used the so-called “economic reality” test, which is the test used to determine independent contractor status under the FLSA.  The CEO argues that this test would zero in on an owner’s “actual relationship” with employees.  The appeal papers urged that “the district court did not apply the ‘economic reality’ test or focus on Catsimatidis’ relationship with the store employees in question. Instead, it looked at Catsimatidis’ overall corporate control and supervision.”  The evidence showed that for over a decade, the CEO has not played a role in hiring or firing decisions, did not make payroll decisions and did not negotiate with the labor unions representing the employees.

An affirmance would pose a danger for employers because it would expose controlling shareholders to liability in scenarios in which they may exercise general oversight of Company operations but are not “on the ground” in a particular store or facility (where decisions about exempt status and work hours may be made).  The Company claims that the “FLSA does not contemplate such disdain for the corporate form.”  On the other hand, the buck (all three million of them) may stop at the top.

To be continued.

A North Carolina-based employee has filed a FLSA collective action and a state law class action alleging, among other things, breach of contract, against Foot Locker Incorporated.  The Complaint alleges that the Company essentially deprived sales associates, cashiers and stockers from properly due wages and overtime through a systemwide policy and practice of managers altering and changing time records.  The case is entitled Kennedy v. Foot Locker Inc., and was filed in the Western District of North Carolina.

As evidence of the necessary commonality, the plaintiffs allege that the employment terms are found in the employees’ written employment offers, the Employee Handbooks disseminated by the Company, its corporate policies as well as other documents.  The gravamen of the plaintiffs’ theory is that they were ostensibly required to log work hours into the computer system, but they allege they were prevented from doing so, whether by accident or otherwise.

The Complaint’s most serious allegation is that “managers … with the knowledge and/or complicity of the company, regularly altered the computerized records …. to reflect a lower number of hours worked by the retail employees.”  This was done because managers are under constant pressure to meet labor costs budgets and if they manipulated the time records to show that no overtime was worked and/or fewer hours were worked, they would be within budgetary constraints.

There may be hundreds of employees, current and former, involved in this matter.  In a similar case, in which a class was certified in September 2009, approximately 5,200 current or former Foot Locker workers have opted into the action.

The Company’s best defense is to show that this was not a widespread or systemic practice, but, at worst, involved but a few “rogue” managers.  The case does highlight, however, the increasing pressure on managers in every industry, but particularly in chain store/franchise situations to stay within imposed labor budgets and what some managers will resort to in order to accomplish that often difficult chore.